How Words Can Cloud Our Thinking

The words we use in everyday interactions are under intense scrutiny. In some contexts, we are increasingly aware of how language can be used to hurt, to demean, to belittle, to exclude. We choose words carefully, not wanting to offend through carelessness or ignorance, and not wanting to take offence when none was meant.

In the new atmosphere of heightened awareness of, for example, equality between sexes, we could take another look at some of the habits of language and communication that we have taken for granted for years.

Trapped by stereotypes

In spite of changing attitudes to the roles and positions of men and women in and out of the workplace, the words and images associated with each send subliminal messages which continue to keep us trapped within certain ways of thinking.

Movements for equal pay and recognition and for mutual respect are undermined by our automatic acceptance of stereotypes which are based on limited assumptions, and by the way in which we use certain words for women and others for men, to the disservice of both.

If someone is described as ‘thoughtful, sensitive and empathetic’, many would assume the person to be female. If someone is said to be ‘dynamic, single-minded and determined’, there is an undeniable masculine tinge to the description.

‘Tough’ stuff

We know that this demarcation is false and unhelpful. We know that words such as ‘tough’, ‘intimidating’, ‘thoughtful’, ‘passionate’, ‘fun’, ‘ambitious’, ‘kind’, ’emotional’, ‘single-minded’ can apply to anyone, yet certain descriptors have a pejorative tone when they are applied to females.

A ‘tough’ woman? Cue assumptions about a troubled personal relationships, an unappealing personality, a need to compensate for what is missing in her life. A ‘tough’ man? None of the above. Usually.

Certain words seem to be applied only to woman. We don’t call men ‘bubbly’ or ‘ditsy’ or ‘airhead’. We don’t refer to ‘working dads’. Men aren’t encouraged to have ‘me time’ and ‘pamper’ themselves because they are ‘worth it’.

In many little ways, we lock ourselves into boxes and reinforce outmoded stereotypes. We enter the world of ‘amusing’ greeting cards, where women are identified by their love of wine o’clock, cake, chocolate, shoes, buying stuff and — still — anything pink, glittery and embossed with foil.

Using words more thoughtfully could help us to increase mutual respect, awareness and understanding. George Orwell said, ‘The slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts’ (Politics and the English Language 1946).

Rather than apply pejorative words equally across the board, we could interrogate their use and meanings more vigorously. Take ‘ditsy’, for example. It can mean disorganised, confused, scatter-brained, nicely eccentric. There are different shades of meaning here, none of them exclusive to a sector of society.

Put the focus on the person

Choosing the most accurate description requires us to focus on the person rather than rely on a throwaway putdown.

‘Bubbly’ can imply that someone is lively, cheerful, animated, optimistic, energetic, engaging, all wonderful qualities which deserve to be acknowledged specifically and not dismissed with a word which suggests a lightweight personality and is inevitably applied to females.

And isn’t it about time that we retired ‘feisty’? Surely the word has outstayed its welcome. It is applied to a woman who is outspoken and spirited, with an implication that she is touchy, difficult, argumentative. There is no equivalent for men.

The use of the word brings to mind the famous remark by that significant 18th Century man of letters, Dr Samuel Johnson: ‘A woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.’

A woman with fire and vigour? Well, lawks a mercy, strike me down with a feather.

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